Tag Archives: junk linguistics

Skedaddle

You would think that after six months and 111 posts attacking Daniel Cassidy’s ridiculous book, How The Irish Invented Slang, I would be nearing the end of my journey, that there would be no nonsense left to pull apart and denigrate. However, Cassidy’s book is such a crap-filled septic tank that there are still plenty of claims in it which are every bit as bad as the worst examples dealt with so far.

One of these utterly moronic claims is the idea that ‘skedaddle’ (meaning ‘to run off’) comes from the Irish sciord ar dólámh. Of course, as usual with Cassidy’s claims, sciord ar dólámh isn’t found in Irish. It isn’t a recognised phrase. It is not found in any song or poem or prose work. Cassidy invented it by putting together words he found in a dictionary. It doesn’t sound much like skedaddle and there are plenty of well-known expressions in Irish which mean to run off or run away. Cassidy liked to talk about ‘phonetic overcoats’ of English but in this case it would have to be more of a ‘phonetic straitjacket’.

Furthermore, the experts tell us that skedaddle is an American version of an English dialect word scaddle, which also means ‘to run off.’ This word is actually attested and it is also found in the English of Ulster (according to the excellent Concise Ulster Dictionary, which in spite of its being published by Oxford is full of words of Irish Gaelic origin and had an Irish language expert on the team, Dr Art Hughes. No doubt he is also an Anglophile stooge of British Imperialism!) There is evidence that the word scaddle exists, which there isn’t with the phrase sciord ar dólámh.

Of course, if Cassidy’s supporters want to claim that this phrase is Irish, then they have a clear choice. Let them find some evidence. Because the testimony of an American moron who didn’t speak any Irish doesn’t constitute evidence.

Hoodoo

According to Cassidy, the term ‘hoodoo’ derives from an Irish expression uath dubh, which according to Cassidy means:

 Uath Dubh, (pron. h-úŏ doo): dark specter, evil phantom, a malevolent thing; horror, dread; a dark, spiky, evil-looking thing. Uath, n., a form or shape; a spectre or phantom; dread, terror, hate. Old Gaelic name for the hawthorn. Dubh, (pron. doo, duv), adj., dark; black; malevolent, evil; wicked; angry, sinister; gloomy, melancholy; strange, unknown.

 (O’Donaill, 457, 1294; Dineen, 374, 1287; De Bhaldraithe, English-Irish Dictionary, 755; Dwelly, 988)

 Looking at this list of dictionaries, you would think that Cassidy had actually found the phrase uath dubh recorded in one or all of them. In fact, no dictionary records the phrase uath dubh. Uath is in Ó Dónaill’s dictionary, where it is described as a literary term meaning fear or horror (for literary, read ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘not in current use.’) It is also given in Dineen, where it is defined as:

            A form or shape, a spectre or phantom; dread, terror; hate.

 It is not found in De Bhaldraithe, which is an English-Irish dictionary and seems to have been thrown in to make the list of references look more impressive. Dwelly is a Scottish Gaelic dictionary and therefore quite irrelevant in this context.

 There is also another old-fashioned term uath, an entirely different word, which means the whitethorn bush.

 So, the situation is this. The first part of Cassidy’s definition above (Uath Dubh, (pron. h-úŏ doo): dark specter, evil phantom, a malevolent thing; horror, dread; a dark, spiky, evil-looking thing) was invented by Cassidy. And not only is the supposed Irish source of ‘hoodoo’ not in any dictionary or any other source, Cassidy mixes up two quite separate words and throws in the adjective spiky for good measure because a whitethorn bush is spiky!

 If you are sympathetic to Cassidy, you are probably saying, if uath exists and dubh exists, couldn’t Cassidy be right? Couldn’t the two words have been combined by Irish speakers to mean an evil apparition?

 I don’t think so. Even leaving aside the fact that uath was an old-fashioned word by the 19th century, where is the evidence that the Irish ever believed in a supernatural being called the uath dubh? Why hasn’t this word survived in any books or poems or stories or songs? Why didn’t the collectors of Irish folklore find any trace of it? Why isn’t it as well known as the banshee (bean sí) or the pooka (púca)?

 Suppose someone decided that in English there was a supernatural being called a spritegoblin. Is it enough for them to prove that the words sprite and goblin both exist in English? Wouldn’t you expect them to find specific references to the compound word spritegoblin?

 Unfortunately, Cassidy’s book is haunted by hundreds of spritegoblins, made-up phrases which don’t exist outside of Cassidyworld.  Cassidy, on his own admission, spoke no Irish at all. He claimed that he ‘checked’ his words with a native speaker of Irish. Exactly how he did this is unclear. I have visions of him walking into an Irish bar, asking if anyone was an Irish speaker, showing the putative native speaker his list of words and asking them if they were OK, and then when they nodded sagely and said ‘Oh yes!’ he would buy them a pint as a reward. Maybe this is a bit cynical on my part, but  I can’t imagine that he did the thing that anyone would do if they seriously wanted to prove their case. I’m sure he never gave a list of words and phrases like uath dubh and sách úr to native speakers in a blind test to see whether they really are recognisable as what Cassidy thought they meant. Cassidy obviously preferred to include all kinds of rubbish and not check his facts at all because with even a slight scrutiny of his materials he would have ended up with a pamphlet rather than a book. 

 The origin of hoodoo is a mystery but there is absolutely no evidence linking it to the Irish language or to the island of Ireland. Unless Cassidy’s supporters can find even one reference to the uath dubh somewhere in the vast corpus of Irish literature, we can reasonably assume that it doesn’t exist.

 Chance of Cassidy being correct: I’ll be generous this time – 0.0001%!

The Great Daniel Cassidy Slang Scam!

I first became aware of Daniel Cassidy’s book a few years ago, when a work colleague told me about the supposed origin of the word sucker, which, according to Cassidy, comes from the Irish sách úr. I was deeply sceptical of this claim, which seemed and still seems very unlikely. Then I came across more and more Cassidy claims on the internet, each one more ridiculous than the last.

They made me angry. I am still angry, at Cassidy himself, at the people who published this nonsense, and at all the people who should have known better than to lend their support to something so obviously worthless. Why did newspapers publish favourable reviews of this book? Why did it win an American Book Award, when anyone with access to Google can disprove half of the claims in the book with ease? Why did academics with solid reputations put those reputations on the line to defend Cassidy? And why has the rest of academia (with a few honourable exceptions) tended to stay silent rather than tackle this nonsense?

When I bought a copy and read the book, I got even angrier. Perhaps even Cassidy’s supporters could smell the bullshit emanating from phrases like liú lúith (Cassidy’s origin for ‘It’s a lulu!’, supposedly meaning ‘an agile shriek’ or some such rubbish), so many of the crazier and more obviously deluded claims were never given on the internet. Because of this, bad as it is, the sample of Cassidy’s work in cyberspace is almost sane and reasonable compared to some of the nonsense in the book.

And as I read more and looked at Cassidy’s contributions to websites, to Wikipedia and to forums, I got even angrier at the constant self-justification and the outright lies. Cassidy had a way of always making himself out to be the victim of irrational conspiracy instead of the perpetrator of fraud and he continually projected his own faults onto those who criticised him. For example, Cassidy claimed that his detractors were always looking for written evidence, while he was concerned with rescuing the traces of the spoken language of the people in American slang which had left no written record. Yet the paradox of this is that Cassidy didn’t speak any Irish and was completely dependent on written sources such as dictionaries and glossaries. He rifled through these looking for phonetic matches for his target sentences and in the process, he demonstrated time and time again that he knew nothing about the grammar of Irish, had only the shakiest grasp of Irish pronunciation and had never made any serious attempt to crack the code of spoken Irish so that he could see how words are really used by Irish speakers in real contexts to describe the world.

Thus we get claims like this. By criticising Cassidy, I am apparently ‘flogging ground sweat’, a slang expression I’ve never heard which Cassidy says means to speak ill of the dead. (Cassidy died shortly after the book was published.) According to Cassidy, this comes from fliuchadh grian suite, wetting a sunny place or figuratively a grave. This is not a real Irish phrase, of course. Its source is Cassidy’s head. The word fliuchadh does mean ‘to wet’, grian means sun, and suite means situated or located (or is the genitive of suí meaning site). But the grammar of the phrase makes no sense. Is grian suite supposed to be a noun meaning a grave? Why isn’t it suí gréine (site of sun) rather than grian suite (sun of site?) Or is it meant to be a compound word, griansuite (sun-situated). And why wouldn’t the Irish speaker use a less ambiguous and strange word like áit (place), making it áit ghréine, áit na gréine, áit ghrianmhar, or even just the word grianán (a sunny place). And anyway, since when does ‘a sunny place’ mean the grave in Irish? Where’s the evidence? Then again, flukhoo gree-an sitcha doesn’t even sound much like ‘flogging ground sweat’. And of course, ground sweat is really a jocular English expression referring to the liquefaction of the body as soon as it’s buried, as in the proverb ‘a ground sweat cures all diseases.’

Cassidy made the assumption that these words could be put together in a particular way to make an Irish phrase, but he did not base this on any knowledge of Irish usage or grammar. His guesswork is rubbish. His scholarship is non-existent. And the whole thing, far from being a tribute to the Irish language or an attempt to elevate the status of Irish culture, is an insulting piece of cultural appropriation. Cassidy was a self-publicist and this book is a massive rip-off, an insult to the Irish people. With this ridiculous book, Cassidy essentially unzipped and pissed on the graves (uaigheanna or tuamaí, not ‘griansuíonna’) of countless generations of Irish speakers.

Which is why I’m quite happy to return the favour.